“BUTCHER ROAD, where hope borders despair.”
My current work in progress is another murder mystery. I began the novel in late September, but it’s shaping up quickly. As of December 1st, the entire story has been outlined and nearly 100 pages are in draft.
The back cover blurb and first two chapters follow. Please leave a comment, and let me know what you think.
Out for an evening walk, Jack Fowler, two years back from a tour in Afghanistan with U.S. Army Special Forces, follows his nose to a body in an abandoned building. The badly decomposed male corpse is unable to be identified. Crime scene investigators can only determine that a single gunshot to the chest was the cause of death.
Given the density of meth labs and drug dealers in the nearby housing project of South Mill, it’s assumed drugs played a role in the killing–that is, until a second body is discovered days later in a similar condition. Both bodies lacked fingerprints, teeth, or other identifiable features, and both are found in abandoned buildings along Butcher Road.
A handwritten note found in the pocket of the second victim entangles the Army veteran in the investigation and puts him on a collision course with the killer.
A stench escaped from a vacant house along Butcher Road, stinging the nostrils of Jack Fowler. The home had been boarded up years ago, vines entombing the front porch soon thereafter. Jack rarely paid attention to the decaying building on his daily walks, but the foul smell couldn’t be ignored. After confirming the origin of the odor, he stepped to the far side of the street and stood, thinking.
It was the smell of death. Of that, he was certain. It had been years, but Jack had encountered the distinctive odor before. He’d never forget coming upon a war-torn village in Afghanistan and finding the bodies of Afghan soldiers killed by rocket fire days prior.
Adrift on the breeze was that same smell, a combination of rotting cabbage, sulfur, and feces. It was the putrid perfume produced by decaying flesh.
As the vivid memories returned, tension spread over his body like a hot rash. He took a calming breath, considering what to do.
Butcher Road was where hope bordered despair. Jack lived in the home he inherited from his father in the middle-class subdivision of Ashley Heights, with its well-maintained brick homes dotting tree-lined streets. The neighboring community of South Mill was constructed in the ‘60s for the hardworking, lower-income residents of Statesfield, North Carolina. When the furniture and textile factories moved overseas in the 80s and 90s, those living in the modest homes fell on hard times and eventually fled the area.
Many of the abandoned buildings inside South Mill had been leveled. Those remaining were homes to trouble. Meth labs were a common source of income for those residing in the crumbling community. As the deadly labs were uncovered by state and local police, the meth-poisoned homes were often burned. Firefighters tending the smoldering ashes of a South Mill home were a common sight, so much so that news of these occurrences had moved to page three of the local newspaper.
For a moment, Jack thought about ignoring his instincts and writing off the unmistakable stench as a stray cat or dog having succumbed to starvation near the vacant building.
He glanced up and down the street but saw no one with whom to share his concern. Turning toward the late-August sun, he knew darkness was less than an hour away.
Jack took his cell phone from his pocket and called the Statesfield Police Department (SPD). Jessica Porter, the assistant to the police chief, answered.
“Jessica, it’s Jack. Is the chief around?”
Her eyebrows arched, surprised by his voice. “He just left for the day, but Al Walker’s here. Want me to put him on?”
“Yeah. I don’t think this can wait.”
Jessica waved the tall, lanky officer to her desk, her hand covering the receiver. “It’s Jack Fowler,” she whispered.
A smirk came to Walker’s face as he reached for the phone. “What’s up, Fowler?”
“I’m pretty sure something or someone is rotting inside a vacant house at the corner of West Oak Street and Butcher Road.”
“You asking me to drive out there and poke through garbage?” he asked, cocking his head in disgust.
“If it’s a body, it’s not gonna smell any better in the morning.”
“Can’t you get close enough to see what it is? I’d hate to drive all the way out there just to uncover a dead possum.”
“Listen, I’ve done my civic duty. As far as I’m concerned, you can stay there and flirt with Jessica all night if you want.”
“Okay. Okay. I’ll be right out.”
Walker handed the phone back to Jessica, who placed it on the desk.
“What was that about?” she asked.
“Your old boyfriend smells something fishy over on Butcher Road.”
Streetlights cast a muddled hue across Butcher Road as Walker’s police cruiser coasted to a stop at the curb. Jack Fowler had moved a safe distance from the stench but approached as the officer stepped from his car.
“Didn’t expect you’d still be here,” Walker said, pulling a flashlight from his belt, shining it at Fowler before turning it toward the dark building.
“I just wanted to make sure you’d show up,” Fowler replied with an emotionless stare.
“I don’t smell anything,” Walker said, lifting his nose into the air.
“The breeze has died. Do you have another flashlight?” Fowler asked.
Walker turned and retrieved one from the glovebox and handed it to Fowler.
“Come this way,” Fowler said, stepping toward the rear of the home. “The odor’s stronger back here.”
With both men shining flashlights along their path, they maneuvered through tall grass and around debris, walking with knees high toward the back door.
Windows at the back of the house were boarded shut, but the weathered back door was slightly ajar.
“Man, you weren’t kidding,” Walker said, taking a handkerchief from his pocket to cover his nose. “Something’s ripe in there.”
Jack stopped short of the door.
“I don’t get paid to search abandoned shacks. You lead the way,” he said, stepping to the side and extending his arm in the direction of the partially opened door.
Walker paused for a moment and tied his handkerchief around his face before pulling his revolver from its holster. He then extended his flashlight through the gap in the door and angled it around the room.
Whiskey bottles, food wrappers, newspapers and cans littered the kitchen. The rain-soaked drywall on the ceiling had collapsed, and water puddled on the floor from the leaking roof. The doors on the kitchen cabinets hung at all angles. Many of them had fallen from the hinges, the shelves becoming homes to insects and rodents.
“It’s the police!” Walker shouted through the six-inch crack. “Anyone in there?”
“That was impressive,” Fowler mocked in a low voice. “Did you learn that at the academy?”
Walker ignored the sarcasm and pushed the rotting door open far enough to squeeze inside.
Flashing the beam toward the front hallway, the source of the odor became apparent. Extending into the room were the contorted legs of a man lying face up on the damp floor.
“Looks like you were right, Fowler. That ain’t no possum.”
Walker stepped around the man’s feet and into the hallway, followed closely by Fowler.
The corpse was dressed in a blood-stained tee shirt and worn jeans. A circle of dried blood surrounded his upper body. His face was decayed and sunken, as if a bowling ball had been plunged into his skull. His skin was black and clung to his bones like Saran Wrap melted on a fireplace poker.
Walker felt his dinner rise from his stomach. He bent down and turned away.
“You okay?” Fowler asked. “You’re looking a little green around the gills.”
“I’m fine. You need to step outside,” Walker shot back. “This is a crime scene now. I’ll handle it from here.”
“Fine by me,” Fowler said, turning and walking cautiously toward the back door. As he stepped outside, he could hear Walker on his cell phone, reporting what they’d found.
Jack moved quickly to the street and took in some fresh air. He thought about waiting for the police chief to arrive. Chief Bill Adkins was an old family friend. Adkins worked for his father when the senior Fowler headed Statesfield PD years ago. Jack’s father died of a heart attack while Jack was serving overseas, and Adkins was appointed to fill the position.
Walker’s police car had attracted the attention of several residents. A small group gathered at the curb witnessed Jack emerging from the vacant building. A teenager, wearing his baseball cap backwards and jeans falling off his hips, sauntered toward him.
“Hey, man. What’s goin’ down over there?” he asked.
“Nothing you need to know about.”
Jack turned in the direction of his home and walked away.
Jack returned from Afghanistan a decorated soldier but a changed man. Unable to attend his father’s funeral, he came home to an empty house. His girlfriend couldn’t adjust to the man Jack had become, his erratic moods leaving her no choice but to move on.
An only child, Jack lost his mother to breast cancer when he was in grade school. His father was his hero and role model. He’d spent his life guided by his father’s reputation. Jack’s Purple Heart rested on his dad’s dresser. It hadn’t moved since he placed it there two years ago.
Jack had been living off the money from his active duty and inheritance from his father, but the funds wouldn’t last forever. He’d need to find employment at some point. He needed to find a purpose first.
Jack awoke with a rapid pulse, his hands clenched in fists. Nightmares and battlefield flashbacks were a common occurrence. Sometimes he could calm himself, sometimes not.
As his bedroom came into focus, the grizzly images of war faded and his heartbeat slowed. Moments later, his thoughts turned to the events from last evening.
He wondered what, if anything, was discovered by the Statesfield PD after he left. He imagined the State Bureau of Investigation would also be called in if the death was determined to be a murder. Based on the condition of the body, foul play seemed obvious..
Jack planned to drive to Charlotte later that day for his biweekly appointment at the VA. Staring at the whirling ceiling fan above his bed, he wondered why he continued to make the 50-mile trip every other Friday to see Dr. Greenfield. The questions and responses had become programmed. By now, Jack felt he could treat himself for his PTSD symptoms, but he still needed the meds to calm and clear his thoughts, and he looked forward to the interaction with other vets at the VA. Only they shared his demons.
He turned to look at the clock on his nightstand. It was nearly eight. Jack usually slept as long as he wanted. He had no reason to set the alarm, and often wondered if he ever would.
He finished shaving just as his cell phone chirped on the kitchen table. He dried his face with a hand towel, tossed it on the counter top, and stepped toward the kitchen.
“This is Jack,” he answered.
“Jack, it’s Jessica. Chief Adkins would like you to come in this morning and provide a statement regarding what you found last night.”
“Not a problem. I planned to stop by anyway. Were they able to ID the corpse?”
Jessica paused before answering. “I can’t discuss the case over the phone,” she finally replied.
Jack felt the hair rise on the back of his neck and his jaw tense.
“You can’t be serious!” he shouted. “I used to work there. My dad was Chief of Police for eighteen years, for crying out loud. And you can’t answer a simple question?”
“Slow down, Jack,” she said, cupping her hand around the receiver. “There are reporters outside my door in the lobby. It has nothing to do with you.”
An apology was in order, but Jack couldn’t force the words. “Tell the chief I’ll be there in a half hour.”
It was a fifteen-minute drive from Jack’s home to the Statesfield Police Station on South Triad Street. Prior to enlisting, Jack received his criminal justice degree from Central Piedmont College and then graduated from the 20-week police academy required by Statefield PD. He worked for SPD more than a year. He couldn’t help thinking of those days as he drove east on I-40.
His goal back then was to be accepted into the FBI’s agent training program, but settled for an administrative role in Statefield PD’s investigative division as he waited to hear from the feds. It was where he met Jessica Smith.
Jack was immediately attracted to Jessica. They shared a dedication to law enforcement, and they also had similar interests outside of work. When they weren’t training for loftier assignments, they were biking cross country or hiking nearby mountain trails. They even resembled each other with tall athletic physiques, dark features, and crisp blue eyes. It was a relationship that seemed destined for bigger things.
Jack pulled his vintage Jeep Wagoneer into the visitors’ parking lot and stepped quickly toward the entrance. Reporters were still milling about the lobby, including a camera crew from Charlotte Channel 6.
Jessica and one of Chief Adkins’ senior officers were standing guard in front of the chief’s office, keeping the reporters a safe distance away.
“Your attention please! The chief has scheduled a joint press conference with Mayor Williams at ten thirty,” Jessica announced, holding both arms in front of her, as if to push the noisy crowd back. “Come to City Hall at that time, and they’ll answer any questions you have.”
The shouts subsided as Jessica and the stocky officer directed the gathering past Jack and into the parking lot. Still unconvinced, the persistent reporters bombarded Jessica with questions about the body found in the South Mill slums.
“City Hall at ten thirty. See you there,” she shouted, pointing toward their news vans.
The small crowd meandered back to their vehicles as Jessica returned to the lobby and toward Jack, who stood at the reception counter.
Jessica looked up at him with stern eyes and a tired face.
“Does Bill still want to meet with me?” Jack asked.
“Yeah, but he’s with Mayor Williams right now. He should be out in a few minutes.”
She turned to the officer who’d helped her divert the unruly reporters.
“Jimmy, can you watch the lobby for a few minutes? I need a cup of coffee.”
“Sure,” he replied, stepping behind the counter.
Turning to Jack, she asked, “Would you like a cup while you wait?”
“Sounds good,” Jack replied.
He followed Jessica down the hallway and into the break room. An open pastry box containing a stale donut was on the table, and a half-filled coffee pot was warming beneath the drip brewer.
Jessica pulled two mugs from the cabinet, one with a UNC logo, the other with App State. She filled them both, and handed the App State mug to Jack.
“Here. We don’t seem to have any Piedmont College mugs,” she said.
“Funny,” Jack replied without a smile. “I guess I deserve that after blowing up at you on the phone this morning.”
“It wasn’t anything that I haven’t heard from you before,” she said, turning away.
“I was out of line, but I was a little edgy after leading your new boyfriend to that dead guy last night.”
“Al’s not my boyfriend!” she insisted, turning to face Jack. “He and I’ve gone out for a few beers after work, but that’s it. Anyway, who I see is no business of yours.”
“Alright. Alright. I didn’t come here to argue.”
Jessica leaned against the counter and took a sip of coffee, a scowl etched on her face.
“How’s your mom doing?” Jack asked.
“Better, but she lost a lot of weight going through chemo.”
“I’ve always liked Betty. She’s a spunky woman. I hope she gets back to feeling better.”
“She asks about you from time to time. For some crazy reason, she’s concerned about you.”
“Concerned? What is there to be concerned about?”
“Jack, look at yourself. You live alone in your dad’s old house. You don’t have a job. Hell, you’re still driving the Jeep you had in high school.”
“I like that Jeep. It’s a classic.”
“Are you still going to the VA?” she asked. “You gotta get control over your ups and downs.”
Jack stared at her for a moment before slamming his mug down on the table.
“Let’s go see if Bill is free,” he said, stepping toward the door.
Jessica shook her head as she watched Jack march down the hallway. She set her coffee on the counter and followed him to the lobby.
As they arrived, Mayor Williams stepped from Chief Adkin’s office dressed in his customary dark business suit. He had a frown on his face that bordered on anger as he walked purposely past Jack. He nodded in Jack’s direction with lips pressed thin, but didn’t speak.
Chief Adkins appeared in his office doorway and Jack approached.
“Hi, Chief. Is now a good time?”
“Sure. Thanks for coming in,” he replied, extending his hand. “Have a seat.”
Adkins closed the door and returned to his desk. It was obvious the meeting with the mayor had left him unsettled. He raked his hand over his close-cropped hair and exhaled slowly before leaning back in his chair.
“The mayor seemed a bit upset. Is everything okay?” Jack asked.
“He’s just concerned about the press conference and how this murder will reflect on his record. He wants to wrap up this case quickly.”
“Have you been able to identify the victim?” Jack asked.
“No, and it may not be easy. Someone went to great lengths to hide the identity.”
“Before I say anything more, I know I can trust you to keep this within the department. Right?”
“The body was missing its teeth and the hands had been dipped in acid.”
“Shit!” Jack exclaimed, his head jerking back. “What about DNA?”
“Too early, but we’ll be lucky to get a DNA match unless the dead guy or his relatives have had priors, or unless they’ve had reason to be tested before.”
“Any ideas on motive?” Jack asked.
“Could be drug related, although no drugs or money were found. It looks like he was killed at the house. Single gunshot to his chest. The bullet is still at ballistics.”
“What about the damage to the face?”
“Coroner said it was major blunt force trauma, probably from a large rock or similar-sized object. Nothing was found at the scene.”
“Strange. Why smash in his face if he was already dead?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe to further hide the identity. Maybe it was an act of anger or passion. Who knows?”
“How can I help?” Jack asked.
“You discovered the body. What led you there? Had you noticed anything unusual earlier?”
“I walk down that street most every evening. I see the normal stuff–families sitting on porches, street kids out on skateboards, a few gang member pass by occasionally. But I haven’t noticed them hanging around that particular house.”
“And what led you there last night?”
“I just followed my nose. The smell carried to the sidewalk. I knew what it was, so I called it in.”
“Simple as that?”
“Yep. Simple as that.”
“Is there anything else you can think of that might help us in the investigation?” Adkins asked.
“I wish there was. I’ve got nothing, but I’ll keep my eyes open whenever I’m in the area.”
Adkins leaned forward, placing his Popeye-like forearms on his desk.
“Jack, how’ve you been doing?”
The sincerity of the question caught Jack by surprise. He stared at Adkins for a moment.
“Fine, I guess. Why?”
“Do you ever think about getting back into law enforcement?”
“Sure, I think about it, but who’d hire a strung out army vet?”
“You came back with a Purple Heart and Army Commendation Medal. You’ve earned the right to perform any law enforcement role you choose.”
“I also came back with goblins in my head. I’m not on solid ground, yet. Don’t know if I will ever be.”
“You seem fine to me,” Adkins replied.
“I’m not sure everyone would agree, especially your assistant.”
“I don’t think you need to worry about Jessica. First of all, she’s the consummate professional. Second, she’s thinks it was a damn shame you didn’t return to the police force after coming home.”
“She told you this?”
“No, but she’s mentioned it to others on the force.”
Jack stared silently at Chief Adkins.
“I have an opening in our investigations unit. You’d be assigned to work with Sam Jessup. He worked many years for your dad. You couldn’t find a better partner.”
“Sam’s a detective. I don’t even have patrol experience,” Jack replied, his eyes darting around the room. “Are you sure?”
“You’ve got patrol experience. It just wasn’t in the states,” Adkins replied. “You grew up in law enforcement, and Sam will teach you whatever else you need to know.”
Jack stared back.
“I appreciate the offer, but I just don’t know.”
“You don’t need to give me an answer today, but I can’t leave the position open for long. Think it over and let me know early next week.”